Considering the amount of controversy and vitriol my first review generated two weeks ago, it’s fitting to follow up with a movie that most of the free world has yet to see. Considering it was released in theaters, on DVD and as part of HDNet movies all on the same day, it’s not as though the studio didn’t try.
The movie is Diggers, a small ensemble piece that’s been making the film festival rounds and is really worth your time if you have a chance to pick it up.
The movie centers around four friends (Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Ron Eldard and Josh Hamilton) scraping to get by in 1976 Long Island. Like their fathers and their fathers before them, they’re clam diggers. The external conflict comes from a large conglomerate that is restricting the waters where the best catches can be made, muscling out the small-time fishermen. In an act of self-preservation, some in the community sell out. Our four protagonists, however, stay true to their small-town way of life.
On paper, this probably doesn’t sound like much to get excited over. But Diggers does an exceptional job of creating a very particular sense of time and place. The bars are dimly lit and gritty, the fishermen’s boats cobbled together out of what looks like scrap lumber. Everyone carries the deshevled look of blue collar wear and tear. Although everyone is economically depressed, fed up with government and big business, wrestling with personal problems and deep emotional loss – you never really get the sense that these people are upset about it because of the relationships they’ve forged and their shared identity as a community.
I know, I know. This sounds lofty in contrast to the coming tidal wave of big blockbusters, but I encourage you to check this film out. Paul Rudd – undervalued in nearly every movie he’s in – turns in a stellar performance as Hunt. Having recently lost his father, Paul struggles to find direction in the face of impending change. A “silent flirtation” with a city girl on vacation (Lauren Ambrose) and his passing interest in photography might offer a way out. In this respect, the screenplay falters because it isn’t anything you haven’t seen in a dozen other movies. But what Diggers accomplishes revolves less around the decision Hunt makes regarding his future and more around how the singular event of his fathers death ripples through the lives of the people around him.
As the only father in the group, Ken Marino delivers a hilarious and complex portrait of responsibility as someone emotionally tethered to his integrity but equally combustive when dealing with his kids. The stress of his home life and financial situation leads him to swear in front his kids and have yelling matches with his wife (Sarah Paulson). But just as quick as he is with his temper, he is as quick to squash his kids using those same swears around him and every cross word with his wife is met with a loving smile. Swallowing his pride in the face of a new baby on the way, he applies for a job with the the looming conglomerate and it’s heart-wrenching to watch.
Marino’s script is all the more surprising when you consider he was once a member of the MTV sketch comedy group The State. Going into the movie with that knowledge might color your perspective. While there are funny moments, make no mistake – this is not a comedy. Again, a surprise considering this guy was on TV a few years ago as Louie – the guy who “wants to dip his balls” into things.
Ron Eldard is fine as the town him-bo who shacks up with Hunt’s sister (Maura Tierney) looking for a partner to quell her grief. Josh Hamilton turns in an acceptable performance as the resident philosophical pot grower that serves mostly a comedic purpose when paired against the high-strung Marino. Their characters add dimension, but not much weight. Ambrose sticks out like a sore thumb, but mostly due to the script’s contrivance to use her as an avatar of Hunt’s self-discovery. Her supportive critique of his photography was an eye-roller. Of course the lazy dreamer with no ambition could really “do something” with his photography. Naturally every big city Manhattanite knows everything about what makes a successful art career.
These grievances aside, Diggers is a quite, intimate movie that doesn’t presume to be anything more than it is. A portrait of small-town life on the East coast in the mid-1970’s. It tells its story at it’s own pace and makes few exceptions. The characterizations are warm and familiar while representing a sub-strata of life most of us aren’t close to. While the coming-of-age aspects of the film are at times rote, this film is a perfect counterbalance to the buffet of major studio sequels currently filling up screens.Take a lazy Saturday afternoon and curl up with this one. You won’t regret it.